ST. GEORGE – Last week’s report about the investigation into allegations of misconduct at the St. George animal shelter is raising questions among some of the individuals interviewed for the investigation, and among local animal welfare organizations. The report has also caught the attention of one former Utah state attorney general. New findings about the sedation drug that was used at the shelter have also raised additional questions about the investigation.
Questions about euthanasia
In an interview, Deputy Chief Richard Farnsworth, who led the investigation into the allegations, revealed that euthanasia was performed at the shelter without the use of sedative drugs the vast majority of the time, and that the “preferred method” of euthanisia was via intracardiac injection, commonly referred to as a “heart stick.” The procedure entails an injection of pentobarbital sodium directly to the heart of an animal, a procedure that, when performed correctly, is not thought to be painful because the heart does not have pain-sensing nerves.
However, according to training methods taught by the Utah Animal Control Officers Association, the use of the heart stick without sedation, while not against Utah state law, is an unacceptable method and should be considered “inhumane under any circumstances.” One report, included in the training, cites a “greater potential for operator error,” which “might not consistently produce humane death.” The heart stick method results in an inhumane death in instances where a practitioner misses or punctures completely through the heart. Those who have witnessed such accidents have described instances of animals dying horrific and painful deaths.
Like nearly all veterinarians, Dr. Craig Brinkerhoff does not perform intracardiac injections. Brinkerhoff does not recommend the practice, even for animals under general anesthesia. Brinkerhoff said that the method would not be appropriate for somebody who, like former shelter manager David Vane, isn’t a trained veterinarian, “because you have to know exactly where the heart is,” he said. “A muscle or a subcutaneous sedative shot in the arm is more appropriate.”
The investigation report stated that Vane sometimes used a sedative drug to perform heart sticks. What was not revealed in the investigation was that acepromazine – the sedative drug used in the shelter for at least the past 10 years – does not induce unconsciousness, but rather, in large doses it induces a catatonic stupor in which the animal is docile but still alert and aware of its surroundings. When dosed with acepromazine, an animal would still be able to perceive pain.
“It’s a mild tranquilizer and antiemetic,” Brinkerhoff said, “it’s kind of like dramamine with people, it helps keep the vomiting down.” When asked if acepromazine was capable of rendering an animal unconscious, Brinkerhoff said that it should never be used for surgical procedures. Even in large doses, “it would never induce general anestheisa,” he said, “it never would go to that point.”
It isn’t clear in the report whether or not Farnsworth was aware, during his investigation, that acepromazine is not a general anesthetic. Paul Van Dam, former attorney general for the state of Utah, said that it was inappropriate for the city management to charge the Police Department with investigating the matter to begin with, but rather they should have looked to an outside entity with specific expertise in matters of animal welfare.
“If you are going to investigate animal control violations,” Van Dam said, “you can’t just have a police officer walk in there and do that. He just doesn’t have the expertise.”
The investigation concludes that Vane’s euthanasia methods were not in line with current best-practices; however, Farnsworth and other city officials did not find that the methods Vane used violated any local, state, or federal laws. St. George city code stipulates that animals must be euthanized in a “painless and humane” manner. The Utah Animal Welfare act also stipulates that the city must follow local ordinances when euthanizing stray animals. When asked if he believed that a missed heart stick could be painful, Farnsworth said he agreed that it could be painful. The St. George Animal shelter euthanized 533 cats and 188 dogs in 2011 alone. “Vane administered almost all of the euthanasia for the last several years,” Farnsworth wrote in his report. When Farnsworth was asked if he had heard any reports of Vane missing a heart stick, he said “Vane said it can miss. I’m sure he probably has.”
Farnsworth said he does not approve of the heart stick method, that he finds the practice reprehensible. He recommends in his report that the practice should be permanently banned at the shelter.
“We are working with experts in the industry to update our practices and build these partnerships (with animal welfare groups) up,” Farnsworth said.
The St. George animal shelter has recently stopped the practice of euthanasia altogether, except for in dire circumstances where an animal is suffering and cannot be helped. The city is currently accepting bids from area veterinarians to provide this service in the future, when it is necessary.
Questions about accountability
Brinkerhoff said that he isn’t sure that Vane should shoulder all of the blame for the questionable euthanasia practices at the shelter.
“I’m not trying to defend anything,” Brinkerhoff said, but said he recognizes the reason that Vane chose the heart stick method, and why the shelter was only stocked with acepromazine rather than a suitable general anesthetic like ketamine: “It was faster and it was cheaper,” he said. “It’s not necessarily only his fault, although he was doing it,” Brinkerhoff said, “I would dare say that they (the city management) had a lot of say in doing it this way because it was cheaper. So where does the buck stop?”
City Manager Gary Esplin said that the city moved quickly to change the practices at the shelter once they learned about them. He said that he wonders how anybody could have reasonably expected city government to know about the situation at the shelter when nobody ever came to tell him about it.
“Are you aware that the animal advocate groups have been before the mayor and city council on seven different occasions in the last five years,” Esplin said, “and never on one occasion has anybody ever made one comment to the mayor, or the city council, or the chief of police?”
Esplin said he doesn’t believe the city has failed the shelter. “We have an obligation to operate that facility according to applicable state and federal laws,” Esplin said, “and to the very best we can with the resources that we have, and we have not violated, as I am aware, any federal or state laws.”
Esplin pointed out that there have been 19 public city council forums in the last five years. He said that he found it odd that “not one time in those 19 times; not one time in those seven times when Best Friends has been here; when that homeless group, No More Homeless Pets in Utah; when P.A.W.S.; when the TNR people have been there on seven different occasions; and not one time did anyone bring up one single thing.”
Van Dam says that he’s unconvinced by the argument that residents should share in the blame for the state of the animal shelter.
“That’s the wimpiest, limpest thing I’ve heard anybody say so far,” he said.
Van Dam said that he believes the responsibility for misconduct by city employees lies with city management and those who have been elected to oversee them.
The Police Department leadership strikes a markedly different tone than the city manager on the issue.
“Ultimately I am responsible,” Farnsworth said. “It’s our responsibility, it’s under our purview.”
He isn’t comfortable that some have interpreted the investigation report as saying that the allegations made against the shelter were exaggerated, Farnsworth said. Nearly every allegation that was originally reported was confirmed to have happened, he said, and said that he appreciates that people have come forward with their concerns.
“After looking into this we have found that there are areas in our shelter that needed to be improved. We have updated policies, practices, and procedures,” Farnsworth said. “We’re working with a lot of people, moving forward.”
Police Chief Marlon Stratton also said he agrees that the responsibility for the shelter belongs to the city.
“We didn’t stay as current on our practices as we should have,” Stratton said, “but I am committed that we will make the correct changes.”
The changes are not simply for show, he said. “When all of this goes away and it’s not on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Stratton said, “we’re still going to do the right things for the right reasons.”
Questions about neglect
Many of the pet rescue organizations and volunteers, who originally brought the conditions at the shelter into the public eye, have said that they have tried for years to bring their allegations to the attention of the city, and some of them have said that they don’t understand why their allegations were ignored or glossed-over in the investigation.
Farnsworth wrote in the report that he found “a few incidents of animals requiring medical care that were taken to veterinarians,” and then concluded that no specific information was found to support the claims of neglect.
Mary Bemis, Carol Peckham, Lynn Burger, and other rescue volunteers have said that they have witnessed gravely sick and wounded animals go without treatment at the shelter, but they said the investigators have never interviewed them about these claims.
One of these stories was told in a public forum just a few weeks ago by Bemis, a 71-year-old pet-rescue volunteer. In front of the mayor, city council, police chief, and other public officials, Bemis related the story of a Labrador puppy with a broken leg, caged in the quarantine-area of the city shelter. When Bemis asked the shelter staff why the puppy hadn’t seen a vet, she said that she was told “we don’t do anything for them during the waiting period because the owner might come to retrieve it, and they might not want to pay for it.”
Bemis was interviewed by Farnsworth and Captain Gordon McCracken at the police department, but she said that the investigators never asked her about the testimony she had delivered one week earlier to the city council. Bemis said that much of her interview consisted of “filling me in on what they were doing to improve the shelter.” She said that Farnsworth showed her what improvements were being made at the shelter on an overhead projector. She said that her eyes welled with tears when she saw how quickly they were implementing many of the changes that she and others had spent years fighting for.
In retrospect, Bemis said, she doesn’t believe the investigators really wanted to hear about anything that would implicate wrongdoing by the city.
“He didn’t ask about the past, only about the things they already knew about, like hosing the kennels. He didn’t want anything more,” Bemis said. “He wasn’t digging; he was just trying to appease me by showing me what they were doing at the shelter.”
Lynn Burger, director of a local nonprofit rescue-shelter, said that she was never contacted during the investigation.
“I was never interviewed. Neither was Carol (Peckham),” Burger said. “Carol was listed (as a witness on the report), but she never talked to them.”
In an interview, Farnsworth said that, in the course of his investigation, he had not come across “a single incident of an animal injured that did not receive veterinary care.” He said that “it would be horrific if that happened, but I have no reason to believe that it did.”
In May of 2011, Bemis said that she saw a 6-month-old puppy in the shelter that was “comatose and absolutely emaciated;” and, she said, “they told me they were surprised to find her still alive in the morning.” The puppy had been brought to the shelter after she had been chained outside by her owners and left for days without food, Bemis said. The owner was arrested and convicted of animal cruelty. Court records list Vane as the arresting officer; however, Bemis said she wondered why the puppy was left in the shelter overnight when St. George has a 24-hour veterinary hospital.
There are no veterinary visits listed in the animal shelter’s expense records for May, 2011. In fact, there are no veterinary visits recorded in the whole fiscal year 2011 expense report.
Questions about budgets
In an interview, Esplin said that some local journalists have been unfair in their reporting about the city animal shelter. He said that he thought that it might benefit reporters to look into how other animal shelters in the state function before they “cast aspersions.”
“Do you know what they do at the other shelters in the state of Utah,” Esplin asked. “Do you know what they do in Spanish Fork? Do you know what they do in Tooele? Why don’t they (reporters) investigate what they are doing?”
According to budget information posted on the Utah public finance website, Tooele spends more than double the amount of money that St. George spends towards nonpayroll expenses in its animal-control budget. Spanish Fork spends nearly three times as much as St. George. And St. George has more than double the population of either Spanish Fork or Tooele. In 2012, Tooele spent $2,416.46 in veterinary care for animals in its shelter. St. George paid only $643.00. In some years, St. George did not record any expenses for veterinary care at the shelter.
“It seems to me that they just put it in a backseat position and ignored it,” former Attorney General Van Dam said, speaking about the city’s attitude towards its own animal shelter.
Questions about the investigation
Kris Neal said that she has been telling the city about the state of the animal shelter all along: “I did, P.A.W.S. did, Robin did, we all did,” Neal said.
Neal said that she has kept records going back to 2002. On June 30 – a full month before the allegations about the shelter became public – Neal said that she told police Capt. Gordon McCracken about everything: “the euthanasia practices, the shelter conditions, the poor management, everything.”
She said that she told Farnsworth that she spoke to McCracken; however, McCracken’s name didn’t appear on the list of people who were questioned in the investigation.
“I complained to (retired SGPD Capt.) Lorin Johnson right down the path,” she said, “I bet 5 or 6 times, about the state of the shelter, about Vane’s attitude, about how they euthanize.”
She, herself, talked to Farnsworth, Neal said, and told him that Johnson knew about the state of the shelter as well.
Lorin Johnson’s name did not appear on the list either.
Farnsworth said that he didn’t feel that it was necessary to interview Johnson. “We worked our entire careers together. I never heard him bring this up,” he said.
Lynn Burger wonders why a third party wasn’t brought in to investigate the allegations: “You have the police department investigating the police department,” she said, “it should have been an external investigation.”
Burger said that she felt embarrassed by the way the investigation report dismissed their allegations as if they had made the whole thing up. “It made us seem like fanatics, as the mayor would call us.”
“In my experience of being the attorney general of the state,” Van Dam said, “and also the district attorney in Salt Lake County, … it’s never a good idea to charge an institution with investigating itself.”
Van Dam pointed out how, according to the city code, the police chief answers directly to the mayor. He said:
We’re involved in politics right now with the mayor running for reelection. It’s kind of a recipe for not getting to the bottom of things very easily. You have an animal control division of a police department, where the accountability goes directly to the mayor, through the chief of police. The mayor has power over the police department through his ability to hire and fire the chief. There is an incredibly close connection here, and an incredible amount of power between those two offices. So much so that it is just uncomfortable to me that they would even consider investigating themselves.
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